Today saw SolFedders join with some 100 members of the public to support an unofficial strike by University of London cleaners at Senate House. The cleaners, who are primarily Latin American immigrants and who are employed by the privateer Balfour Beatty, struck over unpaid wages. With some cleaners not having been paid for three months, it was decided yesterday that official union channels weren’t working and the workers called for a strike to begin today at 8am.
As well as facing the consequences and disrespect of unpaid wages, the workers and make less than cleaners at nearby SOAS and Birkbeck, who've secured the so-called the “London Living Wage”. Considering that this is Balfour Beatty's first contract in higher education, the role of privisation, cuts, and a living wage formed the backdrop for today's noisy protest and work stoppage. In any case, once management caught wind of the planned action, one of the organisers of the strike was swiftly suspended. So what was initially only a dispute over pay also became a dispute over victimisation.
When workers and supporters first congregated this morning, management came out to condemn the action and ordered them to disperse. Needless to say, the workers ignored this and kept up their rowdy protest. Shortly thereafter management appeared again and began asking questions about who hadn’t been paid and for how long. An offer was made to meet workers individually and work out compensation. The cleaners declined and demanded that before negotiations begin, the suspended activist be reinstated. Once she was safe, management could them meet with the cleaners as a group to discuss rectifying the situation. Management again left, only to return some time later. This time they offered to speak to the victimised worker along with her union rep. This was accepted and from this meeting came the workers’ first victory: beside a guarantee that no workers would be disciplined for striking, the woman in question was to be given three month’s paid leave after which her employment would cease. Not a bad outcome given that she intended to leave in three months anyway to care for her sick husband.
With that victory under their belts, the workers then agreed to go speak to management individually, given that they could have a union representative present. This happened and the workers have been promised their back wages will be paid tomorrow! The strike itself was notable in several aspects. First, it was a wildcat, organised with 24 hours notice and which won all its demands in three and half hours. Interestingly, the local UNISON branch did seem supportive with local officials at the picket translating, leading chants, and accompanying workers to speak to management. Which such short notice, there was also a distinct lack of political posturing with very few of the “paper sellers” that often come down to picket lines to hawk their particular line. It was workers, students, and labour activists that made this strike a success, not bureaucrats, politicians, or politicos. Finally, it was probably the liveliest picket this author has ever attended. With drums, megaphones, and even a conga line, these workers don’t only know how to win, they know how to party! The Solidarity Federation sends out sincerest congratulations and solidarity to the Senate House cleaners on both their victory and self-organisation.
Thanks for the inspiration and keep up the fight fellow workers.